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31 Oct 2012

Game development blog no.3

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This is part of a series. You can read the previous entry here: Game development blog no.2

The Corruption Game is now going by the working title of "Kleptocracy". Unfortunately, I have to report that this development is probably the only satisfying move in the right direct that the game has taken over the past week.

Last night, on the surface, we had a very negative playtest of the game as it stands. This game is split into roughly two areas of focus - one is each player (a member of the Russian cabinet) trying to build up as much influence as possible in various areas of Russian life (Church, Media, Business, Energy, FSB etc.) and the second is the role of President that gets passed around between players and deliberately distorts the whole game in the president's favour.

We only played two rounds, before the analysis of the game overtook any immersion in the game and we stopped playing. The game was too bitty, lacked focus and was all about the president while the other players didn't have much a sense of identity or many meaningful choices to make. There was also no risk for the individual cabinet members as they sought to gain influence - their actions didn't intrude upon anyone else's, nor were there any particular tricky decisions to make en route.

Out of all those very valid criticisms, I'm only concerned about the lack of focus and the lack of risk or jeopardy. Everything else I pretty much expected. It's a tough leap of faith to take, but I know well enough by now that the games I design feel pretty broken until they're about 75% complete. I put this down to relying on human interaction as the "glue" that holds everything else together. So, for example, something that would feel bitty and unstructured in an abstract strategy game can work wonderfully as distraction and pressure in a game that plays off the players.

The game does indeed need a focus though and I think I might be getting too bogged down in this idea of the President being able to make up rules - I might shelve that temporarily while I work out what the heart of the game should be.

The other problem is risk. I did wonder when I decided upon the game's narrative whether there is much natural risk in those roles. After all, when you're a member of the power elite, how much risk do you really run? Losing your power? And what does that mean, is it just falling out of favour with those more powerful than you? Is it losing opportunity and prospects to advance your position? It's a hard thing to define.

This is where political game design makes things so difficult. To stay true to the objective of the game and to keep the game as a useful satire, the risk the players need to be introduced to has to also be meaningful; it has to stem from something recognisable and real.

You see, with "regular" game design, if you need a game element like the introduction of risk, you can do almost anything. Granted you are probably thinking of a theme and a narrative and you need something that is intuitive, but otherwise your options are wide open. The freedom is there to bolt onto the game whatever is required. But this rarely works with "critical games", where the mechanics and the theme are tightly interwoven.

The process that I'm now faced with is a bit more convoluted - I have to go back to source, re-read about the nature of endemic corruption and probe the subject until I can identify a real-world risk in that system ... then I have to retranslate that risk back into the game in order to arrive at a conflicting mechanic that not only makes sense, but heightens the realism and roleplay elements of the game.

This approach means every design decision takes about ten times longer than it should and is bundled up in further hours of research into the subject matter, but it's immensely rewarding to get it right. (I think we struck lucky in War on Terror when from the beginning we had this notion of funding terrorism that - once on the board - could be potentially used by any player).

So, this week's lesson is: You're going to have test sessions where it feels like there's so much going wrong, the easiest thing to do is start-over. Sometimes that's exactly what you need to do, but sometimes the last thing you should do is listen to every single criticism. You need to identify the critical faults. In order to help me do that, I try and jot down everyone's comments as they speak and then write a brief "counter" underneath each one. Afterwards, when I can view things more objectively, I read through those counter-arguments and work out which still stand and put those criticisms completely out of my mind. I safely dismiss them entirely. After all, if I'm wrong and they're really valid after all, they'll surface again soon enough!

Sometimes, a bit of blind faith in your own vision is occasionally needed to see you through the rocky patches.

Posted by Andy S on 31 October 2012 - 2 comments

Comments so far:

  1. Looking at Russia today, isn't the risk being put in prison for something like tax evasion, as a number of oligarchs who tried to challenge Putin have been. You might need to widen the players roles to more than just members of the cabinet - they could be primarily politicians or primarily oligarchs, maybe even Church Primates (though that last one might be hard to work in well). Each player could have a certain amount of power, of money, of media control, of popularity, of influence in different spheres. Let's call them "stats". Between elections, players could do actions that increase their own stats (however you manage that), or reduce other players stats. These actions may well have side effects - skeletons in your closet that can be used against you down the road. There would then be alliances between players (shifting alliances of course) that would lead to changes in how you accumulate power/money/influence. Come the election, there would be a "vote" where players used their stats (and maybe cards to boost stats) to elect the next president (after the requisite horse trading for favours etc). One mechanism could be cards that you can't use on yourself - maybe for appearance sake or whatever. So rather than increasing your own stats, it increases someone elses. But when you do that for someone, they have to reveal one of the skeletons they have in their closet. Other cards can attack players if they have a matching skeleton in their closet (eg put them in prison for tax evasion). It would be great if the game play could sometimes lead to one player becoming the power behind the throne - they never become president themselves, but they have so much dirt on the other key players that they become untouchable, picking and choosing presidents as they come and go. Also, with the creating new rules/laws aspect, maybe the new laws have to get enough support from other players in order to pass. A similar mechanism to electing the president could be used. Only the president would be able to propose stuff to vote on though. Would have to be done carefully to not get too complicated, but the mechanics could work. And let me know if you want play testers - always happy to help out :) HamishHamish from Work - 31 October 2012
  2. Hey Hamish! Wow, all those are wonderful, rich suggestions. Certainly fired off a lot of thoughts - I like the idea of having something that you need to hide, skeletons in the closet as you put it. And I also like the idea of building up some sort of reputation that can give you leverage at different points in the game. Maybe this is exactly what "influence" is. Part of what I'm looking at right now is exactly what this currency of influence is, where it comes from, how it's manipulated etc. Thanks for your awesome comment. As soon as there's a stable(ish) game to be played, I'll drag you down the pub to give it a spin.Andrew from The Bunker - 31 October 2012

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17 Oct 2012

Game development blog no.2

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This is part of a series. You can read the previous entry here: Game development blog no.1

So in the true spirit of wayward development, on top of the previous four games mentioned in my last post, there's now a fifth, new game. And if that weren't enough, this new game has shot straight to the top of our priority list; it hasn't even been played yet. We did warn you this would be quite a random process.

Corruption (working title)

This latest game is about corruption, specifically corruption in Russia, but it will be built around elements that I hope will be recognisable in any corrupt regime or system.

Why Russian corruption? Aren't there countries more deserving of criticism? Yes, absolutely, but there are two main reasons why we've alighted on this subject. The first is that, quite simply, we were asked to consider it. The Russian game publishers, Igrato, are currently in the process of licencing Crunch from us (more about that soon). One day they said, "you could make a great game about Russian corruption".

We thought about it a bit and I started doing some research. I watched this great-creepy documentary about the "Nashi" (scarily reminiscent of Hitler youth), this excellent BBC series, Putin, Russia and the West, and am nearing the end of the rather dramatically titled Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia (which to be fair is a pretty gripping read). And of course, Putin's Russia by Anna Politkovskaya is on the list too... The more I read, the more common themes start to re-emerge - and they are incredibly juicy.

After all, corruption is a juicy subject - and that's the second reason this seemed like a good pick. Who doesn't enjoy the chance to play a corrupt, evil megalomaniac?

What I'm particularly interested in is how a mix of self-interest and fear allows corruption to take root and flourish. I'm also intrigued by how rulers like Putin and Berlusconi manage to harness such popularity through a mixture of charm, bluster and machismo and how they preside over what is really a functioning autocracy that still maintains all the signposts of a democracy. What's really fascinating is that someone like Putin has more-or-less unlimited power, but he regulates himself to ensure he never crosses a line that would break this democratic fašade.

What's really fascinating is that someone like Putin has more-or-less unlimited power, but he regulates himself to ensure he never crosses a line that would break this democratic fašade. So I've been constructing a prototype for a couple of weeks and because of time constraints, all I got round to last night was laying out the board and elements and talking everyone through the rules. As a side-note, I can recommend this as an excellent first "road test". Don't feel you need a full group to test your new idea - just getting it all out and talking through how it plays (and fielding the inevitable questions) is a really effective way of not just discovering holes in your rules but of ordering your ideas too. Something that feels self-evident to you can suddenly feel bloated and fuzzy when you try and communicate it to others.

The game so far uses a mixture of two currencies - money and influence - to help players gain control of the game. Ultimately the win is about getting the most money, but I'm already wondering whether this is too simplistic and whether there shouldn't be more recognition of how "power" is often the goal, with money being a happy result of having power. Also, I think I need to move away from Junta wherever possible.

On that note, I was aware right from the start that escaping the shadow of Junta would be a big ask when designing a game about state corruption. Money, violence, bribery, coups, power-struggles ... these subjects are all covered by Junta and retreading this ground is pretty much inevitable. We even played a (rare) seven-player game of Junta last week to refresh our minds of this hilariously chaotic game and as a genuine fan of the game I have the tough task of making sure that any similarity is "homage" and not "ripoff"!

Without a game report to write, I'll leave you with the ingredient that generated most discussion. I want the President in "Corruption" to be able to write new rules into the game. Not select from a range of new rules, but literally rewrite the rules. And I want the other players - and their ability to organise, stick their necks out and work together - to be the only check on this potentially devastating power.

Certainly if anything is asking for a game to be broken, it's allowing the players to start making up rules. But then, players do this anyway, whether we (or even they) recognise it or not. I'm just taking that idea to an extreme. And while I had in mind that this would be a side-play to the main game, it sparked such interest and thought that I'm already wondering if it should be brought more centre-stage. I guess we'll find out how successful it is as an idea first!

Posted by Andy S on 17 October 2012 - 5 comments

Comments so far:

  1. Calvinball!! That was the first thing to go through my mind when you said 'rewrite the rules'. Check out the 'Calvin and Hobbes' comic if you don't have a clue what I'm talking about; they're such a fount of creativity that checking them out is a good idea anyway. On a somewhat more serious note 'rewriting the rules must be bound by some rules that are not rewritable, or else one could just say 'new rule: I win!' (which is the equivalent of pulling a gun in the middle of a conversation) and that isn't the point, I would think. Take a look at the 'fluxx' series of games; there one adds, alters or removes rules by playing cards, so there is freedom, but restricted to what the doesn't violate the core definition of the activity engaged in (like pulling a gun in a conversation does). For the intrigue aspect of the game, you definitely should take a look at Diplomacy (specifically its 'everyones actions are revealed at the same time' mechanic) but you probably new that already. Best of wishes!David Holt from Amsterdam - 20 October 2012
  2. Hi David, I know Calvinball - but had long forgotten about it, so thanks for reminding me. I just spent some enjoyable minutes refreshing myself. I think the "no rules, within rules" mantra is a bit of a cop out. I accept it begrudgingly though - however, I really want to push this idea. My current solution is that a new rule doesn't immediately become law, that there's a "cooling off" period to allow the other players to react, but reacting itself is costly. So in this manner I want the player proposing the new rule to regulate themselves - not because they're bound by a framework of inexorable meta-rules, but because they need to tread that fine line between pushing an advantage and taking the piss!TerrorBull Games - 30 October 2012
  3. Ah, but the 'cooling off period' is itself a meta-rule. Of course reaction should cost you, but ultimately, even the ruler of Russia (or the US, or China, or whatever) cannot implement his rules unless he manages to convince, bribe or scare enough of the other 'powers that be (ptb)'. And there are always other ptb, in russia that would be the olicharchs, the church, the KGB etc. So maybe the president makes the rules (and I wouldn't rotate this role, Putin doesn't do so either even if Medvedev was figurehead for a while), but the ptb have to vote them in or out, and the president can only overrule them at a cost to his credibility; too much overruling and rebellion occurs. So you get an interaction where the president can oust any one of the ptb, but not without making the rest stronger. Then the president has to 'play all ends against the middle', while the ptb have to manipulate the president into helping their interests. Just some ideas for you. best of wishes!David Holt from Amsterdam - 1 November 2012
  4. Excellent ideas there, David - I genuinely like them all. I'm aware that the cooling-off is a meta-rule, but one that is closer to real life than some meta-rule that might state "Make up any rule, but you may never be president for longer than 4 turns". What I want is to invite extreme ideas - like president proposes "I'm going to be president for life" and allow the other players (who represent the ptb) to respond and for them to be the checks and balance that are needed to keep the game together, rather than a cold, intransigent set of rules in a booklet. But I think we're saying the same thing here more-or-less. Should the President ever rotate? Hmmm, really tough choice. The president can't be truly immutable, otherwise rebellion wouldn't work. But equally, it can't rotate too easily otherwise there's no fear of autocracy setting in. Ideally, I'd like to get a sense of endemic corruption going where following presidents continue where the previous one left off as they see the system benefits them - so even when there's a change of role, the nature of the role persists. Thanks again for your thoughts, it's awesome to get such interesting extra input on this.TerrorBull Games - 1 November 2012
  5. Just happy to help, no matter to how small a degree. I agree that the president should be able to be kicked out, either as a result of general rebellion or of having to hand out too much favours to one person (the final favour being 'OK, you will be president now and I will .. own Gazprom and a Datsja/mansion on the black sea coast' or something like that). Maybe it can even be a 'power move', as in 'Ok, now you are president, and you owe me a huge favour for it, so I manipulate you and strengthen my position vis-a-vis the other ptb (like the 'owning Gazprom' example I gave above) while being out of the limelight and so regaining credibility ... by criticizing the 'corrupt government' (no cynicism is too extreme here! :-p )!' Peace and Lolz too you!David Holt from Amsterdam - 2 November 2012

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30 Sep 2012

Game development blog no.1

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In my last post I declared a desire to document our game development process. This normally stays behind closed doors until late in the day (virtually until we're ready to release), so what you're going to see here is pretty rough round the edges. The world of prototyping is not a pretty one.

On a side note, I find that working with deliberately bare and scrappy prototypes has two key advantages:

You Started It

You Started It prototype
Those "streams" of cards are arguments going back-and-forth about who started "it".

This might be described as our fore-runner right now. It's a two-player game, which is odd because that's not something we ever set out to do. In short, both players are nation states squabbling over various historical events and establishing who started them by means of alternately broadening and narrowing the context of each event to best suit them. It's actually pretty fascinating to see the patterns that emerge in the grid of card-events and it's possible to read quite a complex narrative across them that sometimes eerily mirrors the real world. So what's wrong? Well, because it's largely card-based, there's not a tremendous amount of engagement with the game. Then, the cards are played without the player having much control over when or how they turn up, so it has a slight feeling of two-player solitaire.

Our evaluation: promising theme; needs more fun.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised prototype
These are essentially the actions available to the public players. Shoes in the game represent both selfishness and collusion with the system.

I've always wanted to design a variation of the party game Mafia that, instead of hinging on the uncertainty of a secret foe, uses a known enemy and gets its tension from the (in)ability of the "victim" group to organise and group together. Self-interest vs. group interest is what I really want to examine here and this theme keeps cropping up in a number of game prototypes and ideas. In "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", individuals in the "victim" group make a core decision about whether to stay home and watch TV or take to the streets and start a revolution. There is of course a curfew in effect so anyone out on the streets at night is liable to be arrested by the state player(s). The couple of games we've had have been quite good fun, with promising psychological gambits taking place. However, it's very 'tippy' at the moment and needs some refinement before we test again.

Our evaluation: the combination of being difficult to test, difficult to work on and very hard to market means that the reality is this game is way down our priority list. Shame because it has the potential to be the most fun.

Spin

Starting life off as a game about Orwell's Newspeak and the "memory hole", it then mutated into a game about embedded reporters and is now about editorialising headlines. Whatever the theme (I really liked where embedded reporting was going), the game essentially derives from an idea to make a language game that showed the political power of selective word use. It's quite an advanced game that gives players a starting headline and then asks them to fold in one or more key words, while at the same time making the headline hit a prescribed emotional goal (eg. "More morally righteous", "More dismissive" etc.). It's only had one outing and that game was amazingly successful, going down well with the mixed group we had.

Our evaluation: pretty broken and very open to being 'gamed' so not for everyone. Also quite a demanding game in terms of creativity and even vocabulary so ... who knows. Maybe a "mini release" is on the cards if we can polish it up some more.

Strawman

Strawman prototype
Inset you see Brett of 55 Cards literally struck dumb with effort.

Another language/party game! I don't know what's got into us ... Well the reason for this was a misheard phrase that lead to this game going from idea to prototype in a record 2 hours. The idea is very basic - you have to argue with an opponent, deliberately employing a rhetorical fallacy as the basis for your point. As you progress in the game, you have to work in stupid movements and sounds into your argument-making so that by the end of it you look and sound like an idiot. The hope is that by forcing people to argue badly, we'll teach them how to argue better. (Credit is due to this beautifully presented collection of logical fallacies whose icons I hastily nabbed for our prototype).

Our evaluation: It's really difficult! It takes some serious language (and rhetorical) skills to deliberately construct a fallacious argument to order. However, there was a lot of silliness and laughter in the one playtest we've had so far. Again, maybe a light-hearted mini-release at some point?

Top Secret App!

Top Secret App screenshots
Two partial screenshots. Yes, that is Donald Rumsfeld on the right. Don't pretend you didn't know.

So immediately going against our new-found spirit of openness and collaboration, I have to insist this one stays a bit of a surprise. The reason is that this app is (I don't mind admitting) basically just one joke - taken to a rather dark extreme in an attempt to make the theme really hit home. If we tell you too much now - even the title - it'll basically spoil the joke later on. So here are a couple of screenshots ... a world exclusive!

Our evaluation: This one's definitely happening, but since I'm teaching myself how to code as I go along, progress is slow. I'm hoping to finish it before the year's up.

Posted by Andy S on 30 September 2012 - 6 comments

Comments so far:

  1. That is totally W G Grace next to Donald Rumsfeld!Jake from The Internet - 1 October 2012
  2. Your openness is greatly appreciated! The first two proto-games in particular look interesting. Have you considered starting from a classic sociological/psychological situation, like the prisoners dillemma or the Milgram experiment, and building a game around it? I also like the idea of 'spin', but think about putting it in a format that puts politicians/spindoctors against journalists, hiding the facts v.s. uncovering them. Like 'clue', but if the spinners meet certain criteria they can change the 'truth'. Or something like that. ;-) Anyway, more power (and EVIL, can't have power without EVIL, right) to you!David Holt from Amsterdam - 3 October 2012
  3. David, thanks for your comments. I'm quite heavily influenced by those infamous psychological experiments; I see them as games in their own right. And I really like your suggestions for 'Spin' - I'll definitely explore that avenue of pitting two sides against each other. And I love the idea of a Clue-type "unknown" in a game about truth and message. Very apt. Hmmm... lots to muse on.TerrorBull Games - 7 October 2012
  4. Great Stuff! Try and get a release for all of them, if possible, as they all sound worthy of being created and played. Personally, I particularly like the 'you started it' idea. But as The Beatles B-sides still have validity so would the release of the games that are not currently front-runners. (I can see that 'The revolution will not be televised' is certainly based on the 'volunteer's dilemma').BEN from SWANSEA - 9 October 2012
  5. Thanks for replying! Happy to know my ideas are of some use! Now, to take over the world, for Justice! And Ice Cream. ;-)David Holt from Amsterdam - 10 October 2012
  6. Hey Ben, really appreciate your vote of confidence! Wouldn't it be nice to have a B-side parallel in the games world? The revolution game - and maybe even both the language games - could potentially all be released as print-your-own freebies at some point, depending on their various trajectories. There's something about a party/group game in particular that feels wrong to constrain it with rules and pieces and dice etc. If I can, I want to move away from that and keep it more "pure". TerrorBull Games - 17 October 2012

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24 Sep 2012

The embarrassing side of game design

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I'm really bad at sharing the creative process that goes into designing and making games. It's something that I've often wished I could change, not least because I think it could be a really interesting record and resource for others if I actually talked candidly about work-in-progress.

When I try and analyse the reasons for my reluctance to publicly share what we're working on, I can identify a mixture of natural guardedness, protectionism and worry that too much talk will corrupt the (mostly) spontaneous act of creation. However, more than all those things (after all, who is really going to steal one of our ideas and produce it themselves? - good luck to that person!) is the embarrassment of showing the reality of how wayward the game development path is. I feel a twinge of guilt when I look at our small mountain of unfinished games-in-progress and I feel utterly amateurish when I recall how many times I've declared to myself, "This is going to be our next game!".

I know that recording my thoughts as I go along will inevitably make these failed attempts and blind alleys public (along with my erroneous and changeable opinions). But it's precisely because of the embarrassment factor that I hope this post alone will provide some comfort and resonance to other game designers. Ultimately, it's OK to be wrong. Game design is also rarely a logical, iterative process of refinement. It's frequently messy and unpredictable but in all the cast-aside ideas, patterns and themes reoccur and eventually a cohesive idea grows from them.

Of all the creative pursuits I've tried, I have to say game design is the most challenging. So many aspects have to be right to make a good game that it is often hard to tell you even have a good game until it's nearly complete. And the energy you need to carry you through the process of prototyping-and-testing means that you necessarily have to turn a blind eye to early "warning signs" and plough on regardless. We almost chucked in the towel with War on Terror, for example, at least twice.

So I'm going to try and turn over a new leaf. The next blog post will be my attempt at writing a development update on several games that we're working on simultaneously. I can't promise that it'll last, but my intention is to document the process of producing our next game a lot more openly.

Posted by Andy S on 24 September 2012 - 4 comments

Comments so far:

  1. Just had to test this comment form. It's amazingly new to me.Rue from Olongapo,Philippines - 26 September 2012
  2. War Criminal Captcha - brilliant!James from London, uk - 26 September 2012
  3. Just wanted to test this. Love it.John Travolta from Under your bed - 27 September 2012
  4. Good luck; really look forward to reading itBobo the clown - 19 August 2014

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10 Jun 2012

TerrorBull team up with Acabo to bring their educational games to the UK

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Back in December last year at the Mill Rd Winter Fair, we were happy to see some fellow board game publishers holding a stall near ours. Not only that, but they were selling educational games. What are the odds? It was almost as if the Fates of Boardgame Publishing (they exist, check your mythology textbook) had thrown us together.

Acabo Games (for it was they) were selling the freshly printed English version of their science trivia game, The Art of Science. We thought it was all very good, but didn't think much more of it until we met down the pub later that evening and we got to actually play the game. (You see, the pub is the common element in all significant events). Well it frazzled our right-hemisphere-dominated brains, we can tell you that.

Expecting a rather feel-good, family Trivial Pursuits style game, we got instead a hardcore science grillingExpecting a rather feel-good, family Trivial Pursuits style game, we got instead a hardcore science grilling. We then learnt that the 2,000 questions were the work of an industrious team of Swedish Phd scientists and that our puny humanities degrees really didn't stand a chance.

But the most impressive thing was that we still had a great game. There are a couple of lovely, original twists on the trivia genre that make it engaging even if you're, well, scientifically challenged. For a start, the scoring system is such that you can weight your best subjects at the top, which means you'll be answering more questions in that subject. So by placing "misc" and "tech" right at the top of our score card, we had a fighting chance to compete against chemistry majors. The other interesting touch was the introduction of some "screw you" mechanics (always a favourite component here at TBG). So for example, if you land on another player's square, you can move them to a new square and thus force them to answer their least favourite category next turn.

TerrorBull Games take on The Art of Science

When Acabo said they were struggling to get the game into the UK market, the next step seemed obvious. While we admittedly don't know much about trivia games, we do recognise a quality game when we see it - and not just that, but a game with genuine educational intent, born out of love of sharing knowledge, rather than commercial greed. So TerrorBull Games are now the official suppliers of The Art of Science here in the UK. Check out the dedicated games page for more information. It's been getting some corking reviews and reception already. Perfect for your inner geek - or any scientist in your life.

Also, check out Acabo Games themselves. They have a great ethos and we've also had the pleasure of playing some of their other games, including a beautifully designed estimating/statistics game, which is several thousand times more fun than my description of it right there. We hope to be able to also bring you this game very soon.

Buy The Art of Science from the TerrorBull Shop now.

Posted by TerrorBull Games on 10 June 2012 - 0 comments

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